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Consider the almost surreal hyperbole the Columbia Records biography spews about New Kids on the Block's latest album: The group's members, it reads, "have matured . . . with a razor-sharp musical direction--and a street-savvy edge to their still irresistible sound." It goes on to say, "NKOTB is into [sic] fearlessly plunging into the cutting edge of the hip-hop Nineties."

Columbia's publicity department is fooling no one, including NKOTB's own Donnie Wahlberg, who's just been roused in his Baltimore hotel room for an interview.

"The album is not a groundbreaking album by any stretch of the imagination," says Wahlberg, yawning and letting slip the kind of pointblank honesty that would send ice through the collective bowel of any major-label marketing department. "You can hear the maturity, but I think maturity is not a dramatic thing."
The new, mature Wahlberg just seems happy to be here, touring behind an album that, in his opinion, doesn't totally suck. "History shows our group shouldn't be around right now," Wahlberg says smugly, in his streetwise Boston accent. "We should be junkies, broke and not having a hit record."

Two out of three ain't bad, as comeback mystery Meat Loaf would say. The New Kids aren't dope fiends or homeless, but neither is there a hit record like 1988's Hangin' Tough or 1990's Step by Step, which moved a combined 15 million units. In Billboard's latest album chart, there was no sign of Face the Music.

Wahlberg says there's a reason for this. Since their last tour ended two years ago, the New Kids have been trying to make the almost impossible transition from a group that could humidify a thousand panties at the drop of a flat note to a fivesome of mature R&B singers that might live up to its record company's outrageously kind description of the act's music. NKOTB doesn't want to rely on hype, but "to let the music speak for itself," explains Wahlberg.

To that end, Columbia's promotion of the album has been low-key, Wahlberg says, and Face the Music hasn't had a chance to show its commercial potential. "What we always talk about with them is we've been overmarketed. I think we've been represented by images that were a lot of times never approved by us, like pink slippers and shit like that. Things just move so quick. The last time we were doing nightclubs, six months later, we were doing football stadiums. In the snap of a finger, we went from nothing to millionaires. Once it started, demands started coming through the roof. People saw the marketing potential and wanted to capitalize on it. There was no time or desire to oversee how we were being marketed."

Though Wahlberg denies it, the group and its record company seem to be taking other steps to distance NKOTB from its teenybopper image and gain the group a more mature audience. The now-young-adult Kids have been doing interviews with college newspapers and alternative weeklies that might otherwise have written about hip groups like Poo Poo Pee Pee Pants or Butt Gravy if Columbia hadn't offered a few minutes on the phone with Wahlberg. The group's name has also officially been shortened to an acronym, ostensibly to avoid mention of the K word.

And the Kids are playing clubs--not the kind of venues where most parents want their little girls circulating on a Wednesday night. But the group's shrieking, sobbing, hysterical fan base seems to be immune to NKOTB's struggle for maturity. According to a flack from Columbia, NKOTB's manager was up til 5:30 on a recent morning protecting his boys from 2,000 girls who'd blitzkrieged their hotel with high-pitched longing.

Don't they understand Wahlberg just wants to grow up? "We don't wanna be judged by who's outside the hotels and who's buying the records. When I read a record review in Rolling Stone, I don't want a psychoanalysis. I want to hear what the record sounds like."

Actually, Wahlberg's modest appraisal of Face the Music gives a pretty good idea of what the album sounds like. Any advances in NKOTB's mastery of R&B are strictly infinitesimal. The songs, filled with NutraSweet balladeering and diluted hip-hop, will make you forget neither the savvy harmonies of Boyz II Men nor the mad science of Prince. The tunes unfold as a truly mundane cycle of puppy love and heartbreak, without the benefit of an Akbar & Jeff punch line.

In its hope of being heard over the fans' anguished mating calls, NKOTB parted with Maurice Starr, the group's former producer/Svengali. To help fill the void created by Starr's departure, NKOTB enlisted topflight R&B songwriters/producers Teddy Riley and Narada Michael Walden for some of the album's songs. But why didn't the Kids--sorry, young men--take matters entirely into their own hands and show the world their songwriting is as smooth as their complexions?

"Well, because it's not necessary," Wahlberg says. "That's the first step to stupidity, feeling that because we get so much criticism, 'Well, we need to step up and show the critics we can do everything, we need to write every single note.' That's a trap. That's a trick. We could've done it, but I think we used these other producers as a learning thing, as a stepping stone. To work with Narada Michael Walden, who's known as one of the best producers in the world, that's a great challenge. We wanted to work with people who are not pushovers."
In his own personal bid to show he's not just a beauty prince, Wahlberg also contributed to the songwriting and production of several tracks, which may surprise anyone but the most ardent fan of Wahlberg's brother, Marky Mark. Donnie produced both of Underpants Boy's hip-hop recordings. "I had total creative control with my brother's albums, and to go into NKOTB and not have any control would be outrageous. It would be like putting a gagger on my mouth, taking 100 steps forward and 200 steps back."

From the first strains of Face the Music, it's pretty clear Wahlberg has more on his mind than being just a pretty face. The disc opens with the unmistakable sound of someone striking a match and then taking a hit off a fatty. Ask Wahlberg what it is, though, and all you get is the nervous laughter of a cornered human being. "Ha ha ha ha ha," he laughs, and then offers this stupendous explanation: "Well, since I'm the only one on the song. . . . No, it's not a joint. It's a match being lit, and something is burning after the match is being lit. It's just starting a fire, but not of controversy, just a wake-up. It's lighting a fire under us."

Let's not kid ourselves. Is Wahlberg hopping on the bandwagon of rappers who've found that an image as a pot head can be trendy and lucrative? And, more to the point, does he do major bongs himself? "I'm not gonna get into what I do in my private time," he huffs. "I'm not into the smoking-fucking-reefer-to-make-money type of thing. You're not gonna hear me make any records about smoking joints."

Wahlberg's frankness concerning the ungroundbreaking sound of NKOTB's new disc apparently doesn't extend to discussions of his personal life, as demonstrated by his weaseling out of the marijuana question as elegantly as Bill Clinton. Despite a penchant for saucy street language, he seems particularly eager to debunk his rep as NKOTB's bad boy. Asked about arson charges leveled against him in 1991 for igniting a Louisville, Kentucky, hotel-room carpet, he dismisses the question by saying he only set off a fire extinguisher. "The fire thing, I don't feel any remorse about that, cause nothing happened. That was the biggest hoax in history. I didn't even light a match, and there wasn't a puff of smoke in the hotel. I think the fire chief had a hard-on for me."

Despite incidents like the above mentioned, graffiti-ing a dressing room and sporting a nose ring, Wahlberg, who still lives at home with mom in Boston and believes in Jesus, would have you think he's just an aw-shucks kinda guy who can't believe it was only a few years ago that he was bigger than teen-rag heartthrob Joey Lawrence. "We started out as five guys trying to buy a car and get laid a little bit. Then we were the most-sought-after commodity in the world."

And, if Wahlberg's mode of transportation is any indication, you won't be seeing him on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous anytime soon, either. The man who estimates he could buy thousands of cars drives--drum roll, please--a Range Rover. "I don't make extravagant purchases," he says, sniffing. "I make necessary purchases."

If anything, living the lifestyle of ascetics seems to be the m.o. these days for NKOTB. Indeed, Wahlberg uses words such as "humble" and "low-key" to describe his group's strategy for regaining the public eye. But what if the New Kids find themselves as dead as the DeFrancos after the current tour? What if they suddenly find themselves in the same soup line as David Cassidy?

"If you think New Kids is gonna be dead in two months and you're right, good for you," Wahlberg says, sneering. "What are you gonna do, get a trophy? If people are saying we're gonna be like the Bay City Rollers, the Osmonds or the Partridge Family, who cares? Every music group is gonna fade out sooner or later. If we never make another record in our lives, who cares?

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David Koen

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